Vikings Running Backs Preview: Will Dalvin Cook Get Paid?

Will Ragatz

With the NFL Draft in the rearview mirror, we're going to take an early look at each position on the Vikings' roster. We'll break down any notable competitions for certain roles or roster spots before making a prediction on who makes the 53-man roster, who winds up on the practice squad, and who will be continuing their football career elsewhere. Next up are the running backs (and fullbacks), where there's a major question at the top of the depth chart and not much competition expected at the bottom.

Decision time is approaching for the Vikings when it comes to their star running back.

As Dalvin Cook looks ahead to the final year of his rookie contract, he is waiting on a contract extension that seems to be growing more and more likely. Trent Williams would have been a big acquisition for the Vikings, but they saved a significant amount of money by losing out on his services – Williams reportedly turned down a trade to Minnesota before being dealt to the 49ers – and drafting Ezra Cleveland in the second round instead. 

The Vikings are projected to have roughly $8 million in cap space after signing their rookie class. With that unspent capital, their likely next move will be to give Cook a new deal, according to ESPN's Courtney Cronin. Safety Anthony Harris is also in line for a long-term contract, but the team has a couple months before the July 15th deadline for players on a franchise tag.

Everything GM Rick Spielman has said this offseason would suggest that the team is getting ready to extend Cook. At the NFL Scouting Combine in February, Spielman hinted at that possibility, while saying that those things would wait until after the draft.

"I put Dalvin in the same class as I have all of our other young guys...we've always tried to keep our core young talent that we draft and develop," Spielman said. "Usually we do not look at extensions until after we get through the draft. But I consider Dalvin as one of those core group of players that we definitely want to try to keep."

The draft has now come and gone, and of the 27 players the Vikings either selected through seven rounds or signed as a college free agent, not a single one is a running back. In a recent appearance on ESPN Radio, Spielman seemed to suggest that a Cook extension was imminent, per Cronin.

"We've always had history in the past of once we got through the draft, a lot of the extensions we've done, our philosophy has always been [that] hopefully we're drafting well enough that we reward our own players," Spielman said. "Dalvin Cook's a critical part of our offense and not only is he a great football player, but he's a great human being off the field on how he represents our organization out in the community. We'll see where that goes. I'm sure we'll be talking to his representatives here down the road as we get closer. A lot of our stuff has gotten done before we've headed into training camp. But we'll see how everything progresses."

Spielman isn't just saying that, either. The Vikings have given out extensions to many of their homegrown stars in recent years, including Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Danielle Hunter, Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith, and others. Making Cook the next player to get paid would fit with the team's philosophy.

The key difference between Cook and all of those players is the position he plays. If he were a wide receiver or corner or pass-rusher or any number of other things, there wouldn't be any controversy or even discussion over locking him up long-term. But Cook is a running back, a position that is being increasingly devalued by analytics. He also has yet to stay healthy for 16 games through three seasons. Especially given how many second contracts for RBs have blown up in teams' faces of late, there are those who are rightfully skeptical about whether or not it's worth it to allocate a significant amount of resources towards making sure Cook is a Viking for years to come.

Read our January deep-dive: Should the Vikings Spend Big on Dalvin Cook?

Cook's well-rounded skillset and the Vikings' offensive scheme are two reasons why the team will feel justified in committing to an extension in the expected event that they reach that decision. Cook improved as a receiver last season and was averaging 141.5 yards from scrimmage per game through ten weeks before being hampered by a couple minor injuries down the stretch. He is the focal point of Gary Kubiak's run-heavy outside zone scheme, and his impact was felt in a big way in the team's Week 16 home loss to the Packers, a game Cook was unable to suit up for.

The Panthers recently reset the market for running backs by signing Christian McCaffrey – who was drafted 33 picks before Cook in 2017 – to a four-year, $64 million extension. Cook hasn't nearly matched the otherworldly production of McCaffrey, but his representation will undoubtedly reference that deal in negotiations.

Read: What Does the McCaffrey Extension Mean For Dalvin Cook and the Vikings?

Behind Cook, there isn't much uncertainty at running back in Minnesota. 2019 third-round pick Alexander Mattison is locked in as his backup and change-of-pace option after a surprisingly impressive rookie year. The Boise State product averaged more yards per carry than Cook (4.6 to 4.5) and showed off an unexpected amount of agility and burst, in addition to the power that was his calling card coming out of college. Mattison also is already one of the best hurdlers in the NFL.

Third-string back Mike Boone is another player entering the final year of his contract. He struggled in the aforementioned Week 16 game, but then offered reminders of his upside by going for 148 yards against the Bears the following week. Ameer Abdullah isn't a lock to make the 53-man roster, even though he signed a one-year, $1 million deal to stay in Minnesota. Abdullah saw 38 touches on offense, but mostly added value as a kick returner and punt gunner. Former Oregon RB Tony Brooks-James ended last year on the practice squad and is a longshot to make the team.

Fullback CJ Ham has no competition for his job after signing a four-year, $12.25 million deal this offseason. Ham is one of the more utilized fullbacks in the league and was named to the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement after last season. His backup is UDFA Jake Bargas, who was a tight end at North Carolina but is being moved to fullback by the Vikings. He has a shot to stick around on the practice squad if he impresses in camp.

Predictions (RB)

Starter: Dalvin Cook

Backup: Alexander Mattison

Make 53-man roster: Mike Boone, Ameer Abdullah

Practice squad: N/A

Cut: Tony Brooks-James

Predictions (FB)

Starter: CJ Ham

Cut: Jake Bargas

I think the Vikings will wind up keeping five running backs (including Ham) for the third straight year. Abdullah isn't a sure thing, as the team could clear up a roster spot elsewhere by waiving him and using rookie WR KJ Osborn to return punts and kickoffs. But Abdullah's value on multiple special teams units and his veteran presence will likely be enough to help him stick around. Right now, I don't have either Brooks-James or Bargas getting one of the ten practice squad spots.

Other post-draft position previews

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